Heinrich Heine on Ludwig Tieck, Pt. I

Their words have been honored by such Lieder composers as Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn and Brahms. For more information on the music inspired by Heine and Tieck, as well as other fine German poets, I invite you to visit Emily Ezust’s Lied & Art Song Texts Page. To better appreciate the challenges of their time and circumstance, please see previous post, “Young Germany and Heinrich Heine.”

“You could scarcely fail,” replied the stranger.
“Whoever knows how to seek,
Whoever feels his heart drawn toward it with a
Right inward longing
Will find friends of former ages there,
And glorious things, and all that he wishes most.”

Ludwig Tieck

“After the Schlegals, Ludwig Tieck was the most effective author of THE ROMANTIC SCHOOL. For it, he fought, thought and sang. He was a poet, a name which neither of the Schlegals deserved; for he was a true son of Phoebus Apollo, and, like his ever-youthful father, he bore not only the lyre but the bow, with a quiver full of rattling, ringing arrows. He was, like the Delphian god, intoxicated with lyrical fire and critical cruelty. And when, like him to, when he had pitilessly flayed alive some literary Marsyas he merrily grasped with bloody fingers the golden chords of his lyre and sang a sweet song of love.

The poetical polemic which Tieck waged in dramatic form against the adversaries of the school belongs to the most remarkable curiosities of our literature. They are satirical plays, which are generally compared with the comedies of Aristophanes. Yet they differ from the latter almost as much as a tragedy by Sophocles differs from Shakespeare. If the ancient comedies had the same cut and style, the strictly drilled step, and the exquisitely metrical language of ancient tragedies, so that they might pass for parodies, so are the dramatic satires of Tieck cut in as original and strange a manner; just as Anglicanly irregular and as metrically capricious as the tragedies of Shakespeare.

Was this form invented by Tieck? No; for it existed already among the people of Italy. He who understands Italian might get a tolerably correct idea of the dramas of Tieck if he will dream himself into the chequered-bizarre, Venetian-fantastic fairy tale comedies of Gozzi, mixed with a little German moonshine. In fact, Tieck took many of his masks from this merry child of the Lagunes. Following his example, many German poets have mastered the same form; hence, we have had comedies whose comic effects were not produced by a single fanciful character or a gay intrigue, but where we are transported at once into a wild and merry world, where animals talk and act like men, and where chance and caprice take its place in the natural order of things.

This we also find in Aristophanes. But the latter chose this form to reveal to us his profoundest views of the world, as , for instance, in the “Birds” where the maddest efforts of mankind, their desire to build the grandest castles in the air, their defiance of the eternal gods, and the vain joy of their triumphs, are set forth in the most ludicrous caricatures.

And it was that which made Aristophanes so great, because his views of the world were so great, because they were grander and more tragic than the tragedian himself; because his comedies were really jesting tragedies. Take, for example, his Paisteteros, who is not shown up in his ridiculous worthlessness at the end of the play, as a modern poet would have planned it. On the contrary, he woos and wins the beautiful, marvellously mighty Basilea; he sores with this heavenly bride to his city in the air; the gods are compelled to obey him, folly celebrates its marriage with power, and the play ends with joyous marriage-hymns.

Can there be, for any reasonable man, anything more cruelly tragic than this victory and triumph of folly? Our German Aristophanes do not rise so high; they refrain from such lofty views of life; they manifest the utmost modesty as regards discussing those very important relations of man, politics and religion; they only venture on the theme which Aristophanes himself has treated in the “Frogs” as a subject of satire – the stage itself – and they have mocked with more or less cleverness its failings.

Still we must consider the politically enslaved condition of Germany. Our wits, restrained from ridiculing real princes, made up for it by attacking kings of the theatre and queens of the coulisses. We, who were almost destitute of political journals which discussed public affairs, were all the more blessed with countless aesthetic journals, containing nothing but idle tales and theatrical criticisms, so that anyone who saw our newspapers might well suppose that the whole German race consisted of chattering nursery maids and theatrical critics.

And yet it would have been unjust.

How little content we were with such miserable scribbling appeared immediately after the Revolution of July, when it seemed as if free and bold words might be uttered in our own dear native land. There sprung up all at once newspapers which criticized the good and bad acting of real kings, and many of them who had forgotten their parts were hissed in their own capitals.

Our literary Scheherazades, who had hitherto put the public, that plump Sultan, to sleep with their little tales, were now silent; the actors saw with amazement the pit empty, however divinely they played, and even the reserved seats of the terrible town-critics were often vacant. Once the good heroes of boards always complained that they were continually subjects of public conversation, and that even their domestic affairs were discussed in the journals. But what was their horror when the awful truth flashed upon them that nobody now cared what they did!

In fact, when the Revolution broke out in Germany, there was an end to theatres and and dramatic criticism, and the terrified feuilletonists, actors and critics apprehended – and justly – that “Art was going to the dogs.” But this great calamity was fortunately averted from our native land by the wisdom and power of the Frankfort Diet.

There will be, let us hope, no revolution in Germany. We are protected from the guillotine and all the terrors of freedom of the press . Even the Chamber of Deputies, whose competition so greatly injured the regularly licensed theatres, is done away with; and art is saved! Just now they are doing all they can for art, especially in Prussia. The museums gleam with all the splendours of color, the orchestras sound, the ballet-girls leap their loveliest and liveliest entrechats, and a thousand and one novels enrapture the public, and theatrical criticism blooms again.

Justinus relates in his “Histories” that when Cyrus had quieted the revolt of the Lydians , he succeeded in taming stubborn, liberty-loving spirit by inducing in them an interest in the fine arts and other pleasant things. So there was nothing more heard of Lydian liberty or rebellion, but all the more famously did the Lydian restaurant-keepers, panders and artists flourish.

Now there is in Germany rest and repose. Theatrical criticism and novels are to the fore, and as Tieck exceeds in both, all friends of art pay him the tribute due. He is, in fact, the best novelist in Germany. Yet all his works are not of equal worth or of the same kind. We can distinguish in him, as in painters, many manners.

His first was altogether that of the old school. Then he wrote to order, and by command of a bookseller, who was no other than the Nicolai himself,the most self-willed of champions of enlightenment and humanity, the greatest enemy of superstition, mysticism and romance. Nicolai was an indifferent writer, a prosaic old wig, who often made himself ridiculous by scenting Jesuitism. But we, the later born, must admit that old Nicolai was a throughly honest man, who meant well for the German race, and who in the holy cause of liberty did not dread that cruelest of all martyrdoms, ridicule. I was told in Berlin that Tieck once lived in Nicolai’s house, one story above the latter, and so the modern time walked over the head of the old.

The works which Tieck wrote in his first style, mostly tales and long novels, among which “William Lovell” is the best, are very insignificant and without poetry. It would seem as if the rich poetic nature of this man was frugal and stinted in his youth, and that he saved up all his spiritual wealth for a later time. Or was Tieck himself ignorant of the treasure which was in him, and were the Schlegals needed to discover it with their divining rod? For as soon as he came in touch with them, all the riches of his imagination, his deep feeling and his wit. at once showed themselves. Diamonds gleamed, the purest pearls rolled out in streams, and over all flashed the ruby, the fabulous carbuncle gem of which romantic poets have often said and sung. This rich breast was the real treasury whence the Schlegals drew the funds for their literary campaigns. Tieck had to write for the school the satirical which I have mentioned, and prepare according to the new aesthetic recipes many poems of every kind. This is his second style.

His best productions in it are “The Emperor Octavian,” “The Holy Genofeva,” and “Fortunatus,” three dramas which take their names from chapbooks. The poet has given to these old tales, which have ever been dear to the German world, new and costly clothing. Honestly speaking, I prefer them in their old naive, true-hearted form. Beautiful as Tieck’s “Genofeva” may be, I love far better the old Volkbuch, very badly printed at Cologne on the Rhine, with its rude woodcuts, in which it is touching to see the poor naked Countess Palatine, with only her long hair for chaste clothing, while her little Schmerzenreich is nursed at the teats of a pitying doe.

Far more precious than these novels are the novels which Tieck wrote in this, his second manner. These too are mostly taken from the old popular legends. The best are “The Blond Eckbert” and “The Runenberg.” In these compositions, we feel a mysterious depth of meaning, a marvelous union with Nature, especially with the realm of plants and stones. The reader seems to be in an enchanted forest; he sees subterranean springs and streams rustling melodiously, and his own name whispered by the trees. Broad-leaved clinging plants wind vexingly about his feet, wild and strange wonder- flowers look at him with varicoloured longing eyes, invisible lips kiss his cheeks with mocking tenderness, tall mushrooms like golden bells grow singing about the root, great silent birds cradle themselves on the boughs, and nod adown with their cunning long bills.

All breathes – lurks – is thrilling with expectation, when suddenly the soft tune of a hunter’s horn is heard, and a beautiful lady with waving plumes on her cap, a falcon on her wrist, rides past on a white palfrey. And this fair dame is as bright and blond and violet-eyed, as smiling and yet serene, as true and yet as ironic, as chaste and yet as passionate, as the imagination of our glorious Ludwig Tieck. Yes! his fantasy is a wondrous winsome damoiselle of high degree, who in an enchanted forest hunts fabulous creatures – perhaps the rare unicorn which can be caught only by a pure maid.”

To be continued tomorrow in Part II.


Johann Ludwig Tieck